ATHENS, Ga. — It turns out the concerns about South Carolina’s offense were misguided.
It was the Gamecocks’ defense that fell apart Saturday in a 41-37 loss to No. 21 Georgia — a nearly four-hour-long game where both defenses seemed to take the night off.
After a decade of mostly close, low-scoring games in the series, the teams combined for 735 yards and 78 points, the most since the Gamecocks joined the SEC and the second-most in series history. The highest-scoring game in the series was Georgia’s 52-34 win in 1970.
The USC defense, so fast and dominant in throttling N.C. State in a 7-3 season-opening win, failed to show up. The Gamecocks missed tackles, blew assignments and spoiled a career night by USC quarterback Stephen Garcia and the most prolific scoring game by a Gamecocks’ offense against Georgia.
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USC (1-1, 0-1 SEC) fell to 5-13 against ranked opponents under Steve Spurrier. Georgia (1-1, 1-0) avoided its first 0-2 start since 1996.
The statistics did not reveal a total Georgia gashing. The Gamecocks ran 30 more offensive plays and outgained Georgia 427-308 in total yardage.
But the Bulldogs scored on all five of their red-zone chances and kept pin-balling off USC defenders who were going for big hits instead of textbook tackles.
“We came out a little sluggish, I guess like we were living in last week,” USC cornerback Akeem Auguste said. “On defense, we like to hit. So every chance we get, we’re going to try to take your head off. But they were bouncing off.”
Garcia set career highs by completing 31 of 53 passes for 313 yards. His completions tied for the fourth-most in school history while his attempts tied for second all-time behind Steve Taneyhill’s 58 against East Carolina in 1994.
The right-hander threw two touchdowns, led USC in rushing (10 carries for 42 yards) and drove the Gamecocks the length of the field in the final minutes.
But on fourth-and-4 from the Georgia 7-yard line, Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran broke up Garcia’s pass for tight end Weslye Saunders at the goal line with 22 seconds remaining.
“We had a great chance to win at the end,” Spurrier said. “Their kid made a good play batting it down.”
It appeared Garcia had a running lane, but he said he decided to pass after seeing Curran coming toward him. Curran thought Garcia likely would have made the first down if he’d kept it.
“I tried to sidearm it to Wes. I thought we’d win the game,” Garcia said. “But then I saw (Curran) put his arm out to tip it.”
Gamecocks kicker Spencer Lanning tied Collin Mackie’s single-game record with five field goals — the first of his career.
Lanning was 5-for-5 on field goals but had an extra point blocked that forced the Gamecocks to go for the end zone on their final drive rather than try a game-tying field goal.
DeAngelo Tyson penetrated the right side of the Gamecocks’ line and blocked Lanning’s extra point, which special teams coordinator Shane Beamer thought was too low.
“Extra points should never be blocked,” Beamer said. “Regardless of penetration, a kick that short should never be blocked.”
The extra point would have tied the score at 38 with 12:56 remaining following Eric Norwood’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown. Norwood said the block changed momentum.
Georgia answered with a 12-play, 47-yard drive that culminated with a 42-yard field goal by Blair Walsh that pushed the Bulldogs lead to 41-37 with 6:20 left.
The Gamecocks took over at their own 19-yard line with just more than six minutes remaining, but they had to start at their 14 following a false-start penalty.
They converted three third-down situations, the first on a pass interference penalty on Vance Cuff against Tori Gurley. A Garcia completion to Moe Brown gave USC a first down at the Georgia 13 with about a minute left.
But after a completion to Brian Maddox moved USC inside the 10, the drive stalled.
The defense was not the only culprit for USC, which looked defenseless in trying to stop Georgia’s kickoff return team.
Brandon Boykin set the tone with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown for the Bulldogs’ first score.
Georgia added a pair of 48-yard returns and finished with a school-record 252 on kickoff returns. By the midpoint of the third quarter, USC kicker Adam Yates had resorted to popping the ball up and forcing Georgia’s up-backs to call fair catches.
Given the recent history in the series — the winning team had not scored more than 20 points in seven of the past eight meetings — most observers predicted a low-scoring, defensive struggle.
Ellis Johnson, USC’s assistant head coach for defense, said an ankle injury to defensive tackle Nathan Pepper forced the Gamecocks to use more three-man fronts than he had hoped.
“That’s where a lot of the busted assignments came from,” Johnson said. “We were playing something we hadn’t practiced much.”
But Norwood said it was a failure to execute more than anything scheme related.
“We gotta get right, just plain and simple,” Norwood said. “You can sit here and say it’s Xs-and-Os. But we’ve got to go out and make it happen.”
That did not happen Saturday.